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Liar, liar, pants on fire



Why kids lie, and how to deal with it

Why kids lie and how to deal with it


Almost as soon as children learn to speak, they lie. I know I did it, and my friends did it to varying degrees. My son and his friends did it. And it goes without saying that some people never stop lying, ever. But children lying can be disturbing. As Beth Arky writes for the Child Mind Institute, parents can “help kids find honest alternatives to bending the truth” if they can understand “why kids lie and be prepared to deal with the issue.”

It seems the many euphemisms for lying speak to the level of discomfort the concept evokes: fibbing, telling an untruth, a whopper, a tall tale, hagiography, a white lie.

Interviewee Matthew Rouse, PhD, a clinical psychologist at the Child Mind Institute, notes how the onset of lying can be sudden and intense: “It’s a new thing where they were pretty truthful most of the time before and then suddenly they’re lying about a lot of stuff.” I noticed this as a preschool teacher’s assistant, working with kids aged two to four. Usually around age three, the more verbal kids realize the quality of attention they receive when telling a story as “true” as opposed to “pretend.” And they lean in to that, insisting they did, in fact, have a pet dinosaur. For real! The unquestioning belief of slightly younger kids inspires them, of course.

READ MORE: Child Behavior: Should Parents Punish Children When They Lie?

Arky notes this as children trying out a new behavior. I.e., “they’ve discovered this novel idea and are trying it out, just as they do with most kinds of behaviors, to see what happens.” Dr. Rouse adds, “They’ll wonder, what happens if I lie about this situation? What will it do for me? What does it get me out of? What does it get me?’” Generally, Dr. Rouse says these lies can be ignored.

Another reason, which extends into adulthood, is to enhance self-esteem and gain approval. Arky writes, “Children who lack confidence may tell grandiose lies to make themselves seem more impressive, special or talented to inflate their self-esteem and make themselves look good in the eyes of others.” Like the preschooler who insisted he could jump as high as the roof, or the full-grown man who insisted he’d outrun the police. Reprimands and light punishments can discourage these lies.

If lies get out-of-hand, Dr. Rouse recommends talking to children about their lying, and praising the telling of hard truths. For repeated lying, consistent, non-negotiable consequences can help, like taking away their phone.

Probably the worst thing a parent can do is to lie to their kids, or to be seen lying or consistently over-exaggerating. Perhaps more than anything else, this will motivate the liar within.



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